Oscar-Winning Composer Rachel Portman on Sound of Antoine Fuqua’s ‘King Shaka’

Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman picked up her Career Achievement Award at Zurich Film Festival on Thursday. She also gave another Golden Eye statuette to Robert IJserinkhuijsen, winner of the 10th International Film Music Competition. Portman was this year’s jury president.

“She is an exceptional composer, a fine storyteller. She paints feelings with sounds. With her, longing can sound mysterious and sadness can sound like hope,” said artistic director Christian Jungen, celebrating an inspiring career in an industry “long-dominated by men.”

“Her compositions are timeless, personal and yet universal,” he added.

“My primary concern is to write music that really, really fits the film. And serves the film. I always wish to write music that has integrity and I will endeavor to continue to do that,” Portman said.

The composer – who won her Oscar for Douglas McGrath’s “Emma” – will now turn her attention to Showtime miniseries “King Shaka,” executive produced by Antoine Fuqua. Based on a true story, it will see Charles Babalola as the founder of the Zulu empire.

“I am really looking forward to that, because I will be working in a musical language that’s completely new to me: Zulu music. My intention is to celebrate and to collaborate,” she tells Variety the following day, also mentioning her work on the late Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved,” based on the book by Toni Morrison.

“He was mad about music, lived and breathed it. He said: ‘Can you not use any classical instruments?’ They all derived from Africa. We put together this very experimental score, something you could only do with Jonathan, and he went: ‘That’s really wild. Let’s put it in the film’.”

To Portman, who also scored the likes of “The Cider House Rules” and “Chocolat,” there is something “powerful and nostalgic” about great film music.

“If you write a piece of music and people end up liking it, that’s great. But I answer to the filmmakers. I am creating music that the film, I hope, really wants and needs. If I am serving anyone, that’s my master,” she says.

“What’s lovely is when you have a director who is generous with their time and able to talk about their intentions. It can be more difficult if they have a little bit of musical knowledge. Because then, they say: ‘Well, I love the cello and I don’t like the oboes.’”

Despite her experience, Portman still underlines the importance of intuition when it comes to her work.

“You either have it or not,” she states, mentioning another personal favorite.

“I loved working on ‘Never Let Me Go.’ I think I did catch something there, the spirit of loss, youth and love, and how much time one can have. In the middle of a story that’s very creepy and dark. But my music had very little to do with that.”

“It’s total instinct. It’s all we have. There are times when you are presented with a film you don’t resonate with so much and it’s good for me to dig deeper. But films like ‘Never Let Me Go’ or ‘Chocolat,’ they are easy. They give a lot to a composer.”

Portman used to describe herself as “gender-blind” in the past. But, as pointed out by Jungen, she has been “paving the way for her female colleagues” for many years now.

“When I was younger, I went through a phase of ignoring it. Now, I feel I have a duty to advocate for female composers and talk about it, about the fact that [the change] has taken so long and it has been so slow. I want to celebrate them,” she says.

“When they played [the medley of] my music here in Zurich, it felt so… feminine. But I have also written music that has real ‘balls,’ uses the whole orchestra and is really loud. I caught myself thinking: ‘Why aren’t they playing that?”

“Later, someone came up to me, saying: ‘We need your female voice.’ I don’t need to fight against that, which is probably what I have been doing for a lot of my career. We need that music as well.”

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